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The Teachers’ Lounge: Stories

An original translation of new Hebrew fiction from Bernstein Prize-winner Dror Burstein, author of ‘Kin’

Dror Burstein
July 23, 2013
Colleen Plumb, from Towards the Sky Again.(Courtesy of the artist)
Colleen Plumb, from Towards the Sky Again.(Courtesy of the artist)
Colleen Plumb, from Towards the Sky Again. (Courtesy of the artist)

The Math Teacher

The Math teacher came into class and said: This morning I forgot everything. The four basic operations. Long division. Addition, subtraction. I forgot the multiplication table. The numbers even. I remember only the number 5. But I am unable to write it or calculate with it. Five. Five. Five. Very strange. I know that I was once the Math teacher. That on the board, with chalk, I solved equations and exercises. All that ended this morning. I thought about not coming at all. I thought about not getting up, staying in bed a bit longer. I thought about death. I’m 40 years old. A few more moments, I said to my wife, a few more moments this will pass. I’ll lie and wait. Five minutes and that’s it, I said to her. But I had no idea how much five minutes is. Tell me, he said to the stunned class, tell me please, how many are you, children, and how much is the Math teacher.

The School Doctor

In Netanya we had an old doctor, he was a family doctor, a general practitioner, an internist. He was also the school doctor. He went by all those names, he had no real name, he was called the old doctor, the internist, people would say: I’m sick, I’ll go to the internist, I’ll go to the old doctor, go see the family doctor, the school doctor will see you now. And so it was, we would go see the family doctor, the old family doctor, and on the door on the ground floor one word was written instead of his name: doctor, and there he would sit and wait for us, it wasn’t necessary to make an appointment because he had no patients, only our family still went to see him out of loyalty, which cost us our health again and again, but he was a fellow townsman, and a relative, “That’s actually your grandfather,” my mother said to me, “That’s almost your grandfather, you have to see him even if you’re completely healthy, otherwise they’ll throw him out of the clinic.” I don’t remember if the clinic was at the Health Fund, no, it couldn’t have been, it was a simple residential apartment, his apartment, on Herzl Street, and there wasn’t a thing in it, it really was an empty apartment, there was just a rusty oxygen tank in one corner, just a sick bed in one of the rooms, and the doctor’s chair, and a large filing cabinet in which the history of our illnesses was kept, and a cup with dozens of wooden tongue depressors as well as a terrifying reflex hammer. And of course he had a stamp, the family doctor did, and he would stamp prescription after prescription and sign with a fountain pen and tear it off. There was only one inexplicable thing in this clinic, a picture, a drawing, a drawing that was hung on the wall, and I remember that it was a drawing of a lion, a lion deep in sleep. Only a few years ago I discovered that the drawing was by Rubens, and indeed in a catalog it was written that the drawing was located in a private collection in Netanya. When I asked my father about this he said to me, “Of course, you didn’t make the lion up. As a matter of fact, he gave it to me as a gift.” He said, “He would give things away all the time, we were his only patients. He brought them from Belgium rolled up in tubes.” I said, “Who?” And my father said, “What ‘who.’ The sleeping lion.” “So where is it?” I asked anxiously. “Where did you put it?” “The lion?” my father asked amazed. “Why it’s been at your place for some time. Don’t you remember? I hung it at your place, over your writing table, on the day all of you moved to the new apartment, to that new apartment of yours, on the two-hundredth floor. You couldn’t have gone up any higher? You know that I have a fear of ascending elevators. You know I need half a day in order to make it to your front door. And sometimes the staircase is blocked by your crates and I can’t get past. Yes, it’s right in front of your eyes. Day after day. And you didn’t see.” He fell silent. “You know,” he said, “The family doctor is still alive. He asked about you just today. If you are well. He asked why you no longer come to see him.”—“And what did you tell him?”—“I told him the truth.”

The English Teacher

In a far corner of our school, actually in an area that was part beyond the school’s low wall and part in front of the wall, the vegetable garden stood. The subjects of agriculture and gardening were placed in the hands of the Bible teacher for lack of a more suitable candidate. The Bible teacher, who never missed out on an opportunity to tell us about the Master’s thesis he submitted to Ben Gurion University on the topic “Mockery and Taunting in Jeremiah’s Prophecies” tended to describe the act of gardening in biblical terms. “The grass withers, the flower fades,” he said at the sight of a dry anemone; “Trees bearing fruit yielding its own kind,” he gently rubbed his hands together while facing a large bed of weeds. “Then he waited that it should bring forth a harvest of good grapes,” he said and tore off a grape, that is a fig, and blessed it, rubbed it on his sleeve, and ate it.

I was appointed to take care of the field of weeds. This plot of land, almost half a dunam in size, was the pride of the previous Agriculture teacher, who founded the garden in an area that was expropriated, from the city of Netanya actually. He seized the area from the hand of lawlessness, he said. This is a pioneering and educational act. Have you heard about Yehoshua Ben-Nun? You’ll hear about him. The previous Agriculture teacher was also himself a Bible teacher himself.

In the plot of weeds we conducted experiments on weeds. This plot was left alone to grow wild, “like a motley throng that went out from Egypt.” Our teacher planned to perform observations and draw conclusions about the behavior of the vegetation in the plot. The conclusions were to be drawn not only in regards to the vegetation, but also in regards to the human species and everything. There is only one law, he decreed. He spoke about the term “The social garden bed,” which he heard from the previous teacher. He saw in the wild plot an echo of sorts of a primeval, nonstop struggle for survival. In the corners of the garden, he argued, right now, albeit at an unfortunate delay, a plant-theater of the First World War is taking place. Indeed the language of this theater has yet to be satisfactorily deciphered. But, he said and gestured with a thin hand toward an area of chrysanthemums, here before you is the Battle of the Somme. Don’t move, he warned, don’t interfere with the course of history.

I made a duplicate copy of the key to the garden during one of the weekends after working there. It’s with me to this day, and I wouldn’t be amazed if the lock is still the same lock from those days. Maybe I should go and check. But there’s no point. The garden itself, everything behind the gate, was destroyed some time ago. Torched and cleared and plowed and covered with asphalt. Presently there’s a parking lot in it, a parking lot no one parks in, completely empty. No one has ever parked there, because there’s no access road to the garden. The road serving the bulldozers was accidentally closed off when the last bulldozer made its way out of the garden, and it hasn’t been opened up since. Only the locked gate still stands there, securing nothing, not keeping anyone from entering, like a vague reminder of the plants that were turned to ash some time ago.

I found myself, nevertheless, in the plot of weeds. I said to the girl next to me something about the moon and the ants. I made up something about the mutual influence of the full moon on their sexual activity. The ants, I said, worship the crescent moon and fear the full moon. The crescent is a god for them, and the full moon—a kind of devil. The girl looked at me with skepticism. It didn’t look like the few ants we spotted corroborated my argument regarding their theology. “That’s a different kind of ant,” I explained. I pointed out Orion’s belt and explained to her the tremendous distance of the stars. I told her that the star at the belt’s center is among the farthest and largest that human eyes are capable of seeing. I pointed out the armpit star, Betelgeuse. I said to her, if that star was positioned in the place where our sun stands, we wouldn’t be able to see Orion, since the star would burn up the entire solar system all the way to Jupiter together with the Earth and all the eyes on it. Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m crying because of the star,” she said, “I remembered that my father told me the stars are like the moon. Only smaller, and farther away. Because of this you can’t see that the stars are also crescents. The light just—”, here she lost the train of thought. Suddenly I remembered that there was a blind person in her family.

I leaned on the stump of the fig tree. Her father was also a teacher in our school. Of English. He didn’t know English. But he translated T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” into Hebrew, and thus obtained his position. Later on it became clear that he merely updated the translation by Pavel Cherniak, who himself didn’t translate it from English but rather from Polish. Her father changed a few words in Cherniak’s translation, and the translation was published under his name in a literary supplement and afterwards in an elegant book. Cherniak had long since died, burned in a match warehouse in Netanya, and no one paid any attention to the interesting similarity between the two versions. When the thing was discovered, her father was fired from his position. Yet he was allowed to continue holding the title “English Teacher,” although he was demoted to the position of janitor. Churchi was his name. But his original name was Churchill, like the name of that same well-known British leader. He was ashamed of his name and cut off the last letterswhen he was fired. I’m not worthy, he said to whoever asked. His daughter was Ayelet Churchi—the letters had been removed from her name too, like from the names of all the family members.

We lay at a certain distance from one another in the shade of the fig tree. Indeed it was night and of course no shadow was cast, but I said something to her about the stars’ shadow. There’s light, there’s a body blocking that light, the tree for instance, or your hand, therefore from a scientific perspective there is shadow at night, too. Only it’s swallowed up, weak. But we cast them, and they are cast upon us. We lay there and looked at the garden and the stars. Her father, she said, didn’t recover. He, his whole life was English poetry. He translated many poets, but now there’s no chance that anyone will publish it. He put all his eggs in one basket, she said. Now the basket is shattered and broken. Stinks, he walks around the house and says, “Eggs is stinks.” Just like that. He doesn’t know Hebrew very well either. Yesterday I found him sitting on the porch looking at a piece of paper, she said to me. He said to me that he would like me to go the Burial Society and get a birth certificate for him with the exact Hebrew date. When he immigrated they didn’t know his exact birth date so they wrote January 1st of the year of his birth. I said to him, Dad, what’s so bad about a birth certificate from the Ministry of the Interior, but he got annoyed and said, No, you get a birth certificate at the Burial Society. You don’t know everything.

We fell silent. I buried my hand in my pocket. The constellation of stars that I had identified as Orion was, I now noticed, an entirely different constellation. I was about to tell her about my mistake, when she turned to me, and for the first time that evening looked me in the eyes. “Do you want to read a translation of a beautiful poem? I always have all his translations in my bag. It’s all I’ve been reading over the last year.” She turned onto her side and from her bag removed a small binder with pages in it. I watched her leaf through it and select the poem. She carefully removed the page from the binder. The sound of the binder’s round teeth snapping, when they were opened and closed, could be heard clearly in the garden. A bird, perhaps, leapt panic-stricken, from its sleep.

But I said no. I knew I was making a mistake, but I said no. The page remained on the ground, face down. If I had read the translation after she left maybe the next day I would have told her and everything would have been forgotten. But I left the page, its face in the dirt, and walked away myself a few minutes later. I heard the sound of her steps receding, trampling the path of the dried chrysanthemums—a hundred days later all of them were defeated in the fateful battle. Tall thorns overran them, slaughtered them, the sun and the drought attacked from the air. “Man, his days are as grass,” the Bible teacher hummed a Chasidic melody his grandfather, who had perished, taught him, as he gathered the dried flowers and scattered them in a long line, a path of sorts or a long, yellowish rug, which began in that plot and continued to the wall of the garden, upon which a mural of groundsels bloomed, always awash in sunlight and sometimes going up in flames, always in flames.

The Philosophy Teacher

We had a Philosophy teacher who said he was a student of Epictetus. We were ignorant and didn’t know who Epictetus was or when he lived. Years later, when I checked and realized that he died around two thousand years ago, I recalled the Philosophy teacher and his lessons. Our school administration did not look kindly upon lessons in Greek philosophy in a state-religious institution and therefore the Philosophy teacher was forced to claim that Epictetus was among the sages of the Mishnah. He said, there’s Antigonus, there’s Aristobolus, thus there’s Epictetus as well. This wasn’t strange at all. They could sell us anything, and sell they did. I recall, for instance, a Pythagorean Theorem that does not exist, which the Math teacher taught us, in the days just before he was stricken with forgetting. His Pythagorean Theorem was valid not just for right angle triangles but for all triangles. The errors we made following this geometrical theorem will forever accompany us as a mark of disgrace. When the time is ripe, I will recount his mathematical innovations. For now I’ll mention just a few claims and proofs. He claimed, for instance, that the original Pythagorean Theorem, the one dealing with right angle triangles, also applies to the Bible. In what sense—he didn’t specify. He tended to be late and excused this with explanations like: I was stuck at home because I was calculating the height of the Tower of Babel using Trigonometry. I found cosine based on the data in the Bible. He also invented types of numbers. Like the almost-prime numbers. An almost-prime number, I remember, is a number divisible by 1, itself, and one additional number. For instance, 4. Almost prime. 9 as well. And 25. He resented that 16 is not an almost prime. If it were, there would have been a beautiful series. At night he labored over his calculations, in an effort to find the mistakes. He had a shoe box he would schlep everywhere. He would come into class, open it a crack, and remove a slip of paper. And whatever was written on the slip he’d teach.

Only the Math teacher is not my interest here but rather the Philosophy teacher. The Philosophy teacher was hostile toward the Math teacher due to the freedom the latter assumed for himself with regards to the wonders of the Greek mathematicians. He would sometimes come into Geometry lessons and sit, visibly full of wrath, and listen, and calculate. The high point was when the Math teacher argued that a straight line is a triangle since the sum of the angles in it is 180 degrees. The Philosophy teacher was furious. “Yes?? So then where is the third side?” he roared. “Why, there are 180 degrees in a square as well, so is a square a triangle? What are you teaching them, Grossman?” The Math teacher didn’t panic. It’s a thin triangle, he said. From the middle to the right is one side, and from the middle to the left—a second side. And the whole line is the third side. It’s a closed triangle. And the sum of the angles in a square isn’t 180 degrees but rather 360 degrees, he said calmly. You’re making a fundamental error. I suggest that everyone work in the area in which he is an expert, the Math teacher said and opened the door, signaling to the Philosophy teacher to leave. It seems to me that he had a similar shoebox as well. Apparently this was distributed as a holiday gift to all our teachers.

And thus we learned the teachings of Epictetus, who was among the Land of Israel’s great Talmudic sages. If a student were to complain about a penalty or failure on a test, the teacher would quote: “Remember that you are but an actor in a play whose character is determined by the playwright; if it his desire that it be brief, so it will be, and if long, long it will be. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, it is upon you to perform this too properly, and so too the part of a cripple, a sovereign, or a private man. This you must do—to play properly the part that is given to you. The choice of the part is in the hands of another.”

One day the Philosophy teacher did not appear in class. A few days later the administration notified us that due to circumstances in the teacher’s family lessons in Philosophy would no longer take place. We were glad and that was it. No one thought to go and find out. For us the teacher was a duty, however much an often interesting one. But once he disappeared and stopped coming he simply ceased to exist, and his empty slot turned into free time. Only ten years later, when I studied Philosophy at the Haifa University, did I recall him, when the professor—who held a truly frightening resemblance in his profile and hairdo to Baruch Spinoza—mentioned the name of Epictetus in passing.

I was reminded of the Philosophy teacher, whose name I had already forgotten, and a few second later I noticed him. He seemingly emerged from out of my recollecting head, he was truly there in the flesh. He sat in one of the first rows of the lecture hall and listened, like me, to the lecture. Despite the ten years that had passed he hadn’t changed much, at first glance. At the end of the lesson I gathered up my courage and went down toward the first row to greet him. To my alarm, when I got close to the bottom of the stairs I was able to ascertain that half his face had been completely disfigured, as if someone had pressed a red-hot iron to its left side. Only his green eye had been spared from the disfigurement, and it looked straight at the board. The old teacher diligently copied the lines the professor had written, who now passed by him, and clearly averted his gaze in order not to look at the gruesome face. I stood there, a bit above him, nailed to my spot. I understood that in a moment the teacher would rise and turn to go up the stairs, and then he would see me, and recognize me. I wasn’t sure I would be able to withstand a face to face conversation with him. I would have to, I knew, ask him about the circumstances in which his face was disfigured. This thing had to have taken place then, during the time at school. And I understood with certainty that this was the reason for the Philosophy lessons coming to an end. Suddenly it seemed to me that I had read that this teacher was a member of some underground organization. There was some issue with the Temple Mount. And the Philosophy teacher, who served in Combat Engineering, tried his hand at assembling a homemade explosive.

The teacher continued sitting there. The hall had already emptied out almost entirely, except for two or three students who remained, half-awake, in the top rows. I said to myself, I’ll go up to the teacher and place my arm on his shoulder. And I went down a step and almost reached him, when from his direction a sort of pent-up, choked roar could be heard. A sort of unclear “No … no,” as if it were a hoarse lion that roared the “no” from the depths of its belly, no, deeper than the belly, as if from a cave. He rested his hand on the shoebox that was next to him. I froze on the spot. From the top step I heard the voice of the Philosophy professor, who stood there and watched me the whole time. “He’s waiting for you to leave him alone, he can’t get up and go to the bathroom while you’re standing on top of him like that. He’ll explode soon.” The old teacher opened the shoebox a crack with one hand, and still didn’t turn his head toward me. A groan bubbled up from his stomach like a pot with hardboiled eggs that had been left over a high flame. I knew I had to get out of there, but I didn’t move from my spot. I waited for him to open the box already. I wanted to look, to see what was inside.

The Teachers’ Lounge

“We, the teachers, are like cells in a brain,” the assistant principal once said. “Each one of us knows one thing and one thing only. Together, especially in the teachers’ lounge, the ideas are formed. Sometimes, on the bus, on the annual hikes, it is truly possible to hear the ideas wandering like lizards on a desert road, on the edge of the Ramon Crater. I think of us in our classrooms, standing and teaching. Each one standing in a classroom by himself, facing a different chalkboard. But I, as assistant principal, am able to see that the boards are nothing less than pages in the great book—I consider it a novel—of our school. I am,” the assistant principal paused for a moment and humbly bowed his head, “the author of this novel.”

The Janitor

Churchi, the school janitor, would say: “I am the poet of this school. This moon,” he said, and pointed at the filthy plaster ball, “who put it up onto the gym’s ceiling? This broom,” he shouted and stuck out a finger, “Who? Who broke it—and then fixed it?”

The Substitute Teacher

From time to time a substitute teacher would come into our class without any warning. And for a moment the doubt would arise, is this the right class and the teacher—a substitute teacher, or perhaps the teacher is the right, regular teacher and the class isn’t the right class, the class is the one that has been substituted, or got the wrong room. And once in fact, as a prank, our entire class went into a different room, and the class that was supposed to learn there went to our classroom, and so the teachers for the two classes came in and for a moment didn’t know if they are who they are, and if this is Math, and if they’re substitutes, but for whom. And one of the teachers once said, a second after entering and giving us a strange look: “I feel like I’m my own substitute teacher.” Back then I thought that he’d gone crazy, today I know what he’s talking about.

But most of the time a regular substitute teacher would enter the classroom he’d been sent to, and would teach what had been foisted upon him in order to pass the time, our time. Most of the time we knew that the material a substitute teacher was teaching was of no benefit to us and so we sat there staring straight ahead. But sometimes from the power of this freedom we actually learned things we couldn’t have imagined in the substituted class. Yes, to tell the truth most of what I remember from school I learned from the nameless, faceless substitute teachers, the guests who happened by for a time. Exempt from teaching the required material, they would loosen their ties as it were and talk about what really mattered. The sun, they said, how does it not burn up all the coal inside it? A comet, they wondered, what is the force that causes it to stop, like a ball that’s been thrown and at a certain moment returns to the hands that hurled it upward, millions of kilometers back to the expectant hands, like a child who forgets a key and comes back? Guinea Pigs, how do they know to yawn and clean their delicate fur? Did you all know, asked one of the substitutes, that all the stones in the Western Wall were once at the bottom of the prehistoric Tethys Ocean and are actually shells and fish bones that were crushed into limestone? And time, the substitute teacher suddenly added, time—what is it at all?

Not so infrequently our parents would serve as substitute teachers. Budget cuts in the Ministry of Education caused the principal to turn to our parents so that they might donate their time and erudition. Otherwise the classroom would be empty. Empty of teachers, that is. And then I would need, the principal wrote to our parents, to come down from my office and teach. But I’m so old, he said. The knowledge I’ve acquired is no longer up to date. That is, erroneous. Everything in my head, he wrote, is nothing but nonsense. And my jokes are already moldy just like those sandwiches that you, the mothers, wrap for them and afterwards forget to remove from their bags.

And thus, one day, my father appeared in our classroom. I knew of course that he had taught in other classes over the years. The quote about the sun and the comets I heard from friends in other classes that had heard him. That’s what he taught them. That’s what he loved—Astronomy. He was a jeweler by trade, but precious, polished stones, he thought, no one wants to hear about that. Just buying and selling. Plus the stars, he told me, they’re diamonds too. Large, unpolished, rare. And there really are diamond stars, he said. Dense coal. It’s a diamond the size of a city, dark, that orbits through space. Or perhaps it, the diamond, stands there, and the black space is what orbits under its tip, its south pole, like a record under a needle, and no one hears this music. I heard this music, he said to me, once, in a dream. It’s like the music of a finger running over a small, thin glass at two in the morning. The description ignited the students’ imagination. Night had already fallen, and there were among them those who went out into the courtyard and raised their heads to the sky, searching for the solitary diamond stars, cultivating for the first time the thought of growing rich. Girls stuck fingers and earlobes out into the black sky as if they were trying on a piece of jewelry at the goldsmith’s shop. Our school’s giant telescope was removed from the shed and pointed upward. My father passed among the gazing students and deciphered astrophysical formulas from memory, settled in one breath cosmological controversies such as why the night sky is dark despite all the burning fire, despite the light returning from the faces of the giant diamonds and multiplied tens and hundreds of times, and why doesn’t the moon fall when it’s full, and so heavy, loaded down with so much light. The questions faded, and the world, with each word he said, became clearer and more mysterious at the very same time.

I sat in the classroom, in my seat and looked at the all the students scanning the dark sky, and at my father conducting them like a silent choir. Nebulae and star clusters emerged, and I understood that we weren’t under the school’s dome of heaven, but rather inside the school planetarium, which my father skillfully set in motion and claimed that it was the actual sky. I turned my gaze to the desk. Outside the students began to fall asleep. I knew that in another moment I too would fall asleep on my desk, and that I would awake again in the morning in the middle of another lesson. I wanted to ask my father a simple question regarding one of the moon’s craters, a crater located inside a crater inside a crater, and at its center there is a mountain taller than the tallest mountain on earth. But as is the way of those brief moments between wakefulness and sleep nothing but a few ridiculous, meaningless mumbles escaped my mouth, and I heard my father laugh from the courtyard and I fell asleep.

We walked down the path leaving the school, up the street in the direction of the abandoned Arab village Um-Khalid. The giant, hollow sycamore tree, which was the official symbol of our city and flew on all the flags and on the mayor’s famous, ever-present knit shirt, stood there under the stars, some of which were above its top and some of which rested on its branches and on its leaves like those birds who come down to rest after a long journey of migration. The tree was hollow, and there’s barely a child or youth in Netanya who hasn’t spent a few minutes inside it, or, as in my case, a few days, overall. You could stand there comfortably with another two or three friends, and sometimes you would go inside and find other residents there, sitting on footstools, small tables next to them, upon which were rolls and olives. And there were also a few hollow branches that children could lay in and fall asleep. You could place a book inside them or a teapot and a few cups. And the tree, in the summer, would, from the power of the sun’s heat that built up inside it, warm the water, and you would drink a cup of tea in the tree. The wind would whistle in the hollow branches. My father extended a hand to me. We climbed up the tree. My mother was already there. I saw that our teapot rattled with a light boil above the heads of my two sleeping brothers, who dozed folded up near the base of the tree, in the spot where the tree kissed the earth.

The Half-Teacher

The Half-Teacher, was, like his name, half a teacher. A few years ago he entered the school elevator, the door closed on him when he was half in the elevator and half outside it. The door of the elevator cut him in two. One half of him went up in the elevator to the third floor and there he exited the elevator, called for help, and collapsed. The medical staff arrived at the building and found the second half of him, that remained outside the elevator, on the ground floor, and saved his life. But during those critical minutes the half that went up in the elevator lost consciousness—and died. The Half-Teacher would come into class and insist on sitting down with his face toward the window. From the side that faced us you might think he is a whole teacher. But we would disturb even him, as was our habit, and he would, despite his super-human efforts, eventually face the class with his missing eye, and scream, “I am half a teacher! I am half a teacher! You won’t listen to half a teacher either?” We would cover up one ear and scream at him, “Half-Teacher! We can’t hear you!” Or he would put on his hat, which dropped to the side a bit, and leave the classroom. Once he sat next to me on the bus. He didn’t recognize me. The station approached, I pressed the bell, I asked in a murmur to get off. But his missing ear was facing me, he didn’t hear my request. I sat back down in my seat. The bus continued on.

The Literature Teacher

The Literature teacher said: “What, in fact, is poetry and literature? Let’s suppose,” he said, “that I go into the kitchen. In the kitchen there is a black bucket, actually an old pot that was turned into a bucket, and inside it is a pile of onions; the onions, without soil and without water, without almost any sunlight, send out green leaves, transform their insides, which are already rotting, into one final growth. I go into the kitchen and think, I’ll make myself onion soup today. But then I see this sight, in the bucket, in the black pot, and I forget about the onion soup. I forget my hunger and my great craving for onion soup. My good friend calls and says, “I’ll come over in fifteen minutes to eat the onion soup with you that I’m sure you’ll prepare especially for me,” but I forget about the friend as well and will never see him again. I bend down next to this onion and peer at the onions’ green leaves, which are ignoring the fact that there is no soil, and that there is no place for their roots to fasten themselves, and there is no hope for anything at all, and nevertheless they protrude in a chorus, or like green birds, parrots perhaps, that take off from the ground and leave behind them, for a moment, for one brief moment, a type of green trail, it seems, which reminds the viewer of a certain taste, yes, the taste of green onion soup, that his mother prepared for him, he dreams up, that his mother made for him when he was little.”

The Gym Teacher

In ninth grade, the ’80s, Dov discovered his ability. One day, without knowing what he was doing, he imitated the Gym teacher. Like a man that passes by a piano and absentmindedly plays, while actually walking, the “Appassionata” and then continues on, it was in his bones and suddenly he discovered it. He snuck into the Gym teacher’s room and with the help of the loudspeaker the teacher used to set the children in motion he began to speak. He was in need of amplification, the teacher was, because he was paralyzed, in an army wheelchair, but they hadn’t fired him, out of kind-heartedness. They connected his room to the P.A. system and he would sit in his room, surrounded by his medals and the trophies of the soccer teams for which he played, and his citations, and the photographs, shaking the hand of the champion captain or the chairman of FIFA or the goalie of the Brazilian team, and at the end of classes he would lock the door and move his chair back until it pressed against the door, and stare at his room as if his trophies and photos were being revealed to him for the first time, and he would stay there for a long time, and leave school last, always. Churchi the janitor would look up toward the lit window from the gate each day and then look at the massive disabled car that was parked in a spot marked with a white rectangle, and locked. But other than this he was happy, really happy. A true joker, and in teacher meetings he would make the Bible teacher fall over laughing with humorous reworkings of the verses. When darkness fell he would leave out the rear gate that opened just for him with the help of a remote control.

He had been the terror of the goalies in the way he could spin the ball on corner kicks, so that it would penetrate at a nerve-racking arc, after the ball’s moving away from the goal, it would go back in. It was like the ball would stop for a moment at a distant point, and then, like a comet reaching the tail end of its distance from the sun, with the last bit of gravity still remaining before it escapes further into the expanses of outer space never to return again, the ball would turn on its axis, moments after everyone already thought, we survived, it got away from him, the attack is over, and return, from the force of that distant kick by the one who already moved to another spot on the field, spinning and turning back and starting to accelerate in the direction of the goalposts.

One day the Gym teacher didn’t arrive at school, and Dov noticed this, the massive car wasn’t standing in its marked spot. He went to the bathroom in his gym outfit, and in this way slipped into the room with the trophies and the pictures and the number 11 shirt hanging on the wall, and the ranks, and the insignia, and the captain band, and the letter of congratulations from the mayor, and enlarged Xeroxed copies of headlines. Without knowing what he was doing as it were he turned on the microphone and in the voice of the Gym teacher Dov instructed the students to get into groups of three as usual, and then calmly ran them around the field, and the regular warm up exercises, everything exactly as usual, no one sensed any difference, least of all Dov himself, who for some reason acted naturally and dispassionately, as if he had put on the teacher’s hat and a second later was already used to it. Five minutes before the end of the class, without knowing why he was doing it, he instructed the students to arrange themselves in the shape of a circle on the field, with their heads facing into the circle, and they obeyed even though this instruction was strange and new, and they formed the circle, and looked at the center point on the ground, and waited for additional instructions. But Dov had already put down the microphone and fled in sudden panic from the Gym teacher’s room, and they remained there, in the pleasant sun of an early morning in the month of November, a minute, two minutes, ten minutes. No one wanted to offend him because when he got offended he got very offended, and would immediately begin talking about his tragedy and the glory of the past and the corner kick that will never be repeated and the leg that is gone. And the students had a hard time dealing with this, since even though they liked him more than all the other teachers they were no longer able to comprehend what war is and what it means to lose your leg, for we were whole and carefree and full of hope in the year 1985. Until finally someone lifted his gaze to the window and apparently saw no one there, and the bell sounded, and the circle scattered anxiously.

All this would have passed without a trace were it not for the fact that a few hours later the Gym teacher’s father, the elderly lawyer Gustav Lavie, called to inform the school administration that his son wouldn’t make it to school in the coming days nor in the days after those since last night he raced his massive disabled car straight into the sea. He didn’t make it far, the water slowed him down and the wet sand stopped the powerful disabled car, but the cool late November night that passed over him while he was sitting in the car full of cold sea water, tiny sea crabs walked over the car’s roof, while he, buckled in his seat belt, watching and staring out into the sea and the waves, that is into the utter darkness, and above him were the stars and the half moon, but the stars turned their back to him, that is they contemplated the far side of the universe, and didn’t notice him, they wrote in the local papers the next day. And when the lifeguards found him the next day at six, frozen, soaked with water and shaking weakly, one of them recognized him by the jersey he wore, and he said, Why that’s Gad Lavie the soccer player, and turned away.

They loaded him onto the surfboard and moved him, wrapped in a wool blanket, to the beach and someone said, isn’t that striker who stepped on a mine in Lebanon? Gazes were then fixed on the sea. The lifeguards and the first of the morning bathers stood around the surfboard, which was placed on the sand in which the wet night’s coldness was still stored, until an ambulance arrived from the north, racing, two wheels on the sand and two in the Mediterranean, and evacuated him to the hospital, there he was treated for severe pneumonia and multiple organ failure (and the next day Dov got sick as well, and they checked his blood, and didn’t find anything, but an old glass test tube full of blood shattered at his feet).

They placed the soccer jersey next to him. The shirt gradually dried on the chair. But the smell of salt stood in the ward. And teachers and students would come visit him and sit on the chair next to “the shirt’s chair,” and former soccer players and captains slowly began to arrive as well, and the coach of Israel’s national team Duvid “The Shark” Shvitzer and Motaleh Spiegler and Shia and Damti and Mutzi reminisced about qualifying rounds of the World Cup, and everyone laughed and enjoyed themselves and argued about the angle and the minute, everyone laughed except him, who lay in bed in a coma.

All this would have passed and been forgotten were it not for the fact that Churchi recalled that while the Gym teacher was resting on the sands his voice was erupting from the usual speaker, that is to say there was a demon or an imposter here. And someone saw Dov passing through the hallway, and someone recalled that he hadn’t reported to Gym class, and the informing was carried out as is the rule, and after a brief inquiry the guilty party was discovered. And Dov (Hereinafter: “the accused”) reconstructed his crime at the scene of the crime as he was ordered to do, indifferent and detached as he had been during his earlier performance. And so the whole school heard, for the last time, the voice of our Gym teacher thunder and echo across the sports field, instructing students, who weren’t there this time but in the classrooms instead, listening with lowered heads, some of them covering their ears, to run faster, jump, jump, to think, like he would say at the start of each lesson, that this here is the National Stadium in front of ten thousand spectators.

Translated by Todd Hasak-Lowy


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Dror Burstein teaches literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University. He was awarded the Bernstein Prize (2005) and the Prime Minister’s Prize (2006). His most recent book is Kin. Todd Hasak-Lowy is the author of two novels, a short story collection, and an academic study of modern Hebrew fiction. His translation of Asaf Schurr’s Motti was shortlisted for the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature. His translation of Burstein’s Netanya is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Dror Burstein teaches literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University. He was awarded the Bernstein Prize (2005) and the Prime Minister’s Prize (2006). His most recent book isKin. Todd Hasak-Lowy is the author of two novels, a short story collection, and an academic study of modern Hebrew fiction. His translation of Asaf Schurr’s Motti was shortlisted for the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature. His translation of Burstein’sNetanya is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.